According to family information, Edward Francis Harris, also known as Eruera Paranihi Harete, was born on 13 May 1834 at Turanga (Gisborne), New Zealand. He was the elder of two sons of Tukura-a-Rangi and John Williams Harris. Through his mother he had affiliations with Ngati Oneone of Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, Ngai Te Aweawe of Rongowhakaata, and Te Whanau-a-Ngaherehere, kin to Ngati Kohatu. In 1831 his father, John Harris, had arrived to start a trading business for a Sydney firm. He was welcomed by the Maori leaders (including Rawiri Te Eke, Tukura's relative), obtained a little land and a wife, and later became a farmer.
It was decided that Edward should have a European upbringing and in 1839 he was sent to the Normal Institution, Sydney, for his education. He stayed there, under the care of Harris relatives, until the end of 1845. By this time his mother is said to have died.
Back in New Zealand, at the family farm on Opou block, near Awapuni, Edward and his brother, Henry, were misfits. They had no prospects and little in common with the children of the neighbouring Maori settlement, Tapatahi.
In early 1851 Donald McLean, working as a land purchase commissioner, came to Poverty Bay to assess – and reject – the possibility of European farmer settlement. He stayed near to Opou, and he and John Harris took a liking to one another. When McLean was about to leave, John Harris asked if he would take Edward with him, to get him a start in life. McLean agreed to help. At first Edward went to work for the missionary Richard Taylor at Wanganui. While there he helped in the Maori school and carried out farm and labouring chores. Later he was engaged in farming activities at Waipukurau, but by April 1854 he had taken up a clerk–interpreter post in McLean's Wellington office. He seemed destined for a secure and unimportant career, in a European environment.
It seems, however, that Edward Harris was ambivalent about his future and his past. He kept in contact with his father; and then, in December 1854, John Harris married Jacintha Adelaide Hargraves. It is perhaps more than coincidence that Edward took leave soon afterwards and made enquiries about his mother's tribal affiliations. According to family traditions he approached the paramount chief of Ngati Porou, Te Kani-a-Takirau, at Uawa to the north of Poverty Bay, who referred him to an elder.
Edward wanted to return to the East Coast, and his brother, Henry, was also seeking work there, but he concluded 'the fact is that Turanga is no longer a home for either of us.' However, in late 1855 Edward applied for and obtained the newly established post of resident magistrate's clerk at Ahuriri (Napier). He settled at Ahuriri and on 9 March 1857 at St Peter's Church, Wellington, married Annie Cheesman, the daughter of a Wellington solicitor. The couple were to have seven children, one of whom died in infancy.
In the succeeding years Edward Harris found it increasingly difficult to find peace of mind and a settled living. In 1859 he resigned from his job; the result, he reported to McLean, of an 'imputation cast upon me'. He then appealed to his father for assistance. John Harris had acquired land part way between Opou and Poverty Bay, and he set his son up with the means of developing it. Within a year the venture had failed, and a despairing John Harris wrote to McLean that any further aid would only impoverish him with no prospect of result. His fear was that Edward might 'relapse into the style of many of our old Pakeha Maoris' and earn a living from casual employment.
Edward Harris himself ceased to hope for success. He too wrote to McLean early in 1861: he had decided to go abroad to a place where 'European labour being so much in demand, one could not readily be placed in a situation of pecuniary distress'. Meanwhile, his father-in-law, R. S. Cheesman, had offered to care for his wife and children, and they had left. However, Harris did not act on his first intention. It is believed that he worked at a store of the principal Poverty Bay trader, G. E. Read, for several years.
In the end, he went with two neighbours to the Otago goldfields where his family rejoined him. His eldest son, Frank, later recalled a series of goldrushes which took the family to the West Coast. During the mid 1860s Harris held various official positions, including registrar of marriages for the districts of River Grey and Cobden, and clerk at the District Court of Westland, situated at Westport.
After 1870 it is not clear how Harris was occupied. One attractive possibility is that he was re-employed by the Native Department. McLean had returned to a position of power in the Fox–Vogel government of mid 1869. In 1873 a new native land act was passed to take effect from the beginning of 1874. It contained administrative provisions to ensure full preparation of land claims before they came up in the Native Land Court; one requirement was the recording of genealogies. There is a suggestion that McLean appointed Harris to compile Maori genealogies for the East Coast area in 1873.
Edward Harris and his family returned to Gisborne in October 1873, the same month as the new law was enacted. Harris built a house on the Kaiti block, across the Turanganui River from Gisborne, and lived there until late in his life, a neighbour of the leading chief, Hirini Te Kani, and close to the meeting house Te Poho-o-Rawiri. The division of the Kaiti block was about to be considered in the Native Land Court. The outcome, under the old legislation, was the grant of undivided freehold in general terms, recording only the names of the principal claimants. However, the flow of European settlers was just beginning, and Maori freeholders began seeking partition of their communal tenure into individual, negotiable portions of land. Edward Harris soon set up business as a licensed interpreter. The licence gave him standing to appear in the Native Land Court, and he found a talent for advocacy which in later years he displayed in Hawke's Bay as well as Gisborne.
In the middle 1880s Edward Harris became an owner of land, using his Maori name Eruera Harete, when the Kaiti block was developed. W. L. Rees, under the auspices of the New Zealand Native Land Settlement Company, promoted a development scheme which excised nearly 250 acres from the whole block. This area was divided into small urban sections, bordered by larger suburban sections and peripheral smallholdings. Streets were named after the owners of the block, who were allotted sections. Conspicuous among the owners were Hirini Te Kani and Harris. They, with Wi Pere, became trustees for the land of the marae. Harris's sections were mostly scattered, but he had a compact block of some 10 acres to the north of Kaiti township. Here he built a new house, Mangamutu. He also owned an inland area, which by 1890 had a flock of sheep numbering over 1,000.
Meanwhile, the genealogy project, never again mentioned as a government undertaking, continued to be a personal interest for Edward Harris. He was assisted by his son, Frank, who from 1873 until about 1885 had been away from home, working on a farm. The first fair copy of a collection of whakapapa, well cross-referenced, has survived. Frank's contribution was as amanuensis, but there are interpolations in his father's hand. There may be around 2,500 names in this version. A later version, with twice the number of names, also has data in Edward's writing, but it is evident that at some point Frank took over the editing. Along with another large collection, which is wholly Frank's work, it was presented to the Native Land Court in 1920 and was later transferred to the Gisborne Public Library. In addition, Edward Harris kept a series of notebooks on his Maori interests. One notebook records Maori chants and songs, including the lament of his mother, Tukura, when he was sent away to school.
All this time Edward remained prominent in the European community. He associated with the lawyers who specialised in land dealings, and took part in European recreational and civic activities. The Gisborne Bowling Club found a site after he arranged the first sales of sections by Maori vendors. His pair of bowls survives, as evidence of active interest: when he died, he had been president of the club since 1896. He became a member of the Cook County Council, a Gisborne Hospital trustee, and chairman of the Pouawa and Kaiti road boards. His genealogical interests ultimately included his own Pakeha ancestry: towards the end of his life he wrote a brief memoir of his father, John Harris.
Edward Harris died on 26 July 1898 from chronic kidney disease, at his home, Mangamutu, at Kaiti, and was buried in the graveyard of the Kaiti Anglican Maori church. A monument in the form of a squared stone column stands over his grave. The coffin was borne from house to church by 12 Maori and 12 Europeans and the service was conducted by the Reverend Herbert Williams and the Reverend Mohi Turei. Committal to the grave was spoken partly in English, partly in Maori.
Edward Harris had a breadth of mind which was evident in his work as an advocate in the Native Land Court. In an open letter addressed to James Carroll he commented on native land laws, and the anomalies introduced in the course of frequent revisions. This letter was published in 1889 as a booklet entitled A few short views of the native land laws, as they principally affect the native race. What he had to say was cogent and well expressed, and he had constructive suggestions to make. His legacy to the future, the genealogical works, were likewise the product of critical intelligence and organisational skill. He was a man of no consequence in the Pakeha world of his youth, who later found security among his mother's people, and who in his last years was doubly esteemed, by Maori and European alike.